Category Archives: teaching

Travel Thursday: UK Day 1-Edinburgh

Edinburgh long.jpgThree years ago, I led a student trip with EF Tours that went through England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. While I loved each country, since it was an 11 day tour, we didn’t get much time to spend in each country. We spent the most time, four days, in Ireland. From there we took a ferry over to Wales where we spent less than 24 hours, most of which was either on a bus or in a town well after everything had shut up for the evening. The next morning we were on the road heading to Edinburgh. We got to spend a day and a half there, but it was not nearly enough time. I fell in LOVE with Edinburgh.

So, when we were planning our next trip, I knew Scotland had to be more of a destination. In fact, I wanted it to be one of our primary destinations, so I picked the England and Scotland tour. I was so excited to be going back to one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited.

We landed in Edinburgh, after some rather hellacious turbulence, a little before 10 in the morning (UK time). I’d been up since just before 9 am EST, which meant by the time we touched down, I’d been awake for 20 hours. Since the best way to avoid major jetlag is to stay awake and keep on trucking, that is exactly what we did. We boarded a bus, amidst some truly terrifying wind and headed first on a bus tour of the city and then on a walking tour of it. Despite being on a plane and a bus for many hours, I still managed to get over 14K steps in on that first day during our walking tour.

Scotland Writer's MuseumSince I was sleep deprived, I don’t remember every single place we walked by on that first day. However, one of the first places we passed was the Edinburgh Writer’s Museum. On my first trip no one had alerted me to its existence, but it was in a simply amazing building. Since we were walking and only stopping for pictures and a brief explanation of what the place was, I didn’t get a chance to actually visit, which was probably for the best since it is dedicated to Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Although I have read some of Burns’ and Scott’s poetry, Stevenson is the only one I feel really acquainted with and even then, I’ve only read two of his books, Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, so a visit to the museum might not have been the most interesting to me. Still, the building was the perfect example of why I fell in love with Edinburgh on my first visit. The buildings are breathtaking. Even the “new” portion of the city looks completely historic.

We passed by the museum on our way from the new section of town to the old. Although, like I said, it’s hard to separate the two since pretty much every building in the city looks like it is at least 200 years old. One think the Scots definitely have on us is a sense of true history. America is such a baby country in comparison!

Since our tour guide found out early on that many of us were Harry Potter fans, she made sure to point out some historic Potter sights. The first of which was the Balmoral hotel, the place where JK Rowling wrote several of the Harry Potter books. She also took us past the Elephant House cafe, where Rowling also worked on her books, making sure to mention the cemetery the cafe looks out over where many of the names of her characters came from. In fact, not long after we stopped outside the famous eatery, which was jammed packed with other tourists waiting to pay homage, we headed to that very cemetery.

Edinburgh cemetaryWhile my group was quite hungry and wanted to find lunch rather than explore the grounds of Greyfriar’s Kirkyard looking for their favorite character’s names, we did get an initial look around, which included some really cool stories about hauntings that supposedly have taken place in the graveyard. In addition to some rather terrifying looking mausoleums, when we met back up with the rest of our group, we found out that some of them had a sort of spooky encounter while they looked at the graves. One of my students went to pick up what she thought was a piece of trash on the ground, near one of the mausoleums. Despite being gated, as soon as she got close to it, she heard strange noises coming from inside. At first she thought they might have been animal noises, but then realized it was some sort of metalic clinking. Only one other person was near her, a fellow classmate, and he heard it to, but moments later, it went silent. They said they didn’t stay to find out what had made that noise, but bolted pretty quickly.

gothic rocketThe Kirkyard was the last official stop on our walking tour. After that we had plenty of time to explore on our own before we had to meet back at the Walter Scott memorial, which our tour guide lovingly referred to as the Gothic Rocket. Apparently it is open to climb up for a small fee. A few of my students contemplated it, but realizing how exhausted they were decided that since they’d been up for about 28 hours, they shook the idea pretty quickly. Instead they spent their time doing a little shopping among some of the “posher” stores on the main drag. I’ve been to the UK five or six times now and I’m not really that interested in shopping, especially not for clothes, but I went in and stood in the front of stores while they had looks around I did find a Whittard’s tea shop, which I know from previous trips that I love, so I did get my group to head in and to my delight, many of my students also fell in love with their tea. I think everyone walked out with a Whittard’s bag.

Despite being so tired that some of my group actually fell asleep in The Jolly Ristorante while waiting for their food, we had a great first day in Edinburgh. By the time we got to our hotel, Edinburgh First Pollock Halls, which was actually dorms for the University of Edinburgh, we were very ready to go to sleep. We’d been up for about 32 hours and wiped out doesn’t even begin to describe how we felt. Still, we were all excited about our next day, when we’d get a chance to explore even more of this amazing city.

Edinburgh city

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Teaching Tuesday: Student travel

travel picture.jpgI’ve just arrived back in the states after traveling for nine days in the UK with 18 students and 3 other adults. This is actually the fourth trip I’ve planned and led to the UK and although at the end I was exhausted and so ready to be home, I’m already planning my next trip!

I led my first student trip 16 years ago, long before I had any children of my own and when the 23-32 hour travel days were not quite so hard on me. My first trip was through Explorica. We took the London Theater tour and it was a lot of fun. As part of the trip, we got to see two West End productions, Blood Brothers, which all but one person in our group of 13 did not care for, and The Woman in Black, which we all adored and were even rather scared by. My only problem with this tour was that our guide was strangely anti-American. He was constantly making snide comments about America and Americans, which I thought was odd considering he was leading a group of them around London. We also got paired with a middle school group and since most of my students had either just graduated high school or were going to be seniors, the age difference was huge. I felt so bad for the one male student in my group, who had just graduated, who had to room with 3 boys going into 8th grade. He was pretty miserable.

On my second trip, I decided to try out EF tours. I was immediately impressed with their service. We went on the Discover England trip and it was amazing! Granted, we had a slightly rough start as our flight out of Indy was cancelled. We spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to get all 12 students and 5 adults to the new flight they’d managed to get us on in Chicago, but eventually EF got us a bus service and instead of flying to O’Hare, we rode. This meant a rousing game of balloon volleyball in the Indy baggage claim area waiting for our bus to show up and then some rather amusing races in O’Hare as we waited for the terminal to open so we could go down to our gate. We arrived there about 3 am and the terminal didn’t open until 5. The kids never once let the delay get to them. We had a blast.

The tour was also really fun. This time our guide was an aspiring actor and not only were several of the girls drooling over him, but he was entertaining and seemed to like Americans. Plus, on this trip we got to see a show at the Globe theater, which was just awesome. I’d wanted to do it on the first trip, but hadn’t quite known how, so this time, I worked with my EF tour consultant and he’d arranged it for us. Even though we had to stand to watch the show, my students LOVED it.

Three years ago I branched out a bit and took students to England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The tour that we went on The Britannia, is one that no longer exists. My group had an absolute blast. We got to visit Platform 9 3/4, stay in a haunted hotel in Wales, did a haunted underground tour in Scotland (even if it wasn’t remotely scary), and ate absolutely delicious bon bons while touring the Ring of Kerry in Ireland. We were paired with a rather obnoxious group from Texas, but we all bonded over just how obnoxious the Texas mothers were (it wasn’t really the students who were the issue). We saw some amazingly beautiful places on the trip, but trying to squeeze 4 countries into 11 days was a bit much. We spent way too much time on a bus and hardly saw anything of Wales or Scotland. One issue of student trips is that they are sort of “tastes” of countries, so a lot gets missed.

Our most recent tip was a bit more limited in scope. This time we decided to explore only England and Scotland. We spent 9 days moving from Edinburgh down to London and it was pretty fantastic. We never spent more than 5 hours on a bus (and that was a hard day) and got a chance to really explore more of the cities we stayed in. The kids definitely got a taste of very different cities and life styles and it was cool to talk to them on the way home because some absolutely adored the fast paced life of London and others much preferred the slower pace of York or Edinburgh, but they all found something to love. When I asked for their favorite moments, they had trouble narrowing it because they’d loved so much of it. Even at their most exhausted, they were thrilled to be on tour.

Traveling with students is pretty phenomenal. I love getting to see them out of the classroom. They are more relaxed and let their guards down, so they really share their personalities with me. They laugh so much more. They confess their quirks and love to be silly. They geek out over places they’ve learned about in history classes or sights they’ve seen in movies (we saw several places where various Harry Potter movies were filmed). They marvel over how much they enjoy visiting places they knew nothing about and maybe weren’t even initially enthusiastic about seeing. They develop new friendships. They learn about other cultures and really listen to people they meet from other countries, which is so cool. Their feet ache and they are sleep deprived, but they still laugh and sing on the tube as they ride back to the hotel after being out for 15 hours. They try bangers and mash and haggis and fish and chips. They eat more ice cream than any human should consume. And they love it.

I can’t explain how much I love seeing the looks of joy on their faces when they see something they’ve always wanted to see. I can’t explain how much I delight in giving them a piece of the world so far removed from the tiny little town they come from. I can’t explain how much I adore seeing them interacting with people from other countries, truly enthralled in their experiences. And I won’t lie, I really enjoy how appreciative they are to me for giving them the experience.

The only downside (aside from extreme exhaustion) is that it is a LOT of work. Sure, I got a mostly free trip to the UK (except for lunches and souvenirs), but I put in more hours than I can count getting ready for it. There were recruitment meetings, parent emails, pre-tour meetings, more emails, paperwork to collect and organize, health issues to memorize and plan for, dietary issues to plan around, packets of information to put together and go over, tip money to collect, more emails–and that was all before we even left. Once we got there, I was responsible for 18 students for 9 days. I had to make sure everyone had their money, passports, tickets, and luggage at all times. I had to make sure everyone was up in the morning and in their rooms in the evenings. I had to make roommate assignments that pleased as many people as possible. I had to make sure no one got lost and made it on to all forms of transportation, including the London underground during rush hour. I had to make sure that during “free time” all students were with a chaperone. Since we were paired with two other school groups, I also had to make sure my kids didn’t get lost on walks to attractions. I cannot even count the number of times I counted heads to make sure they were all accounted for. When kids had medical or dietary or personal issues, I had to deal with them. I had to miss out on a few things I would have liked to do because a student wasn’t feeling well or a few of them didn’t want to go on one of the walking tours. And, I had to take and post pictures of our trip on Facebook, Tweet about our trip and send daily Remind messages so parents could be at ease that the kids were having fun and ok. I’m not sure I got more than 6 hours of sleep the entire trip.

It was worth it though. Traveling with students, while very stressful, is so rewarding. I’ve built relationships with those kids that will thrive and grow. I’ve inspired a love of travel in them. I’ve given them a real glimpse into the world outside their tiny neighborhood and they will never forget it. They may not have been happy with every moment of our trip, but they arrived home with overwhelmingly great memories. They grew in so many ways and really, as a teacher, that is what I live for.

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Teaching Tuesday: book count

book count.jpgThe most tedious end of the year task I have to do is the book count. Every year before we can leave the building, we have to count every single textbook and novel in the English department. This may not sound like that bad of a task, after all, there are ten teachers in my department who are all equally responsible for completing this count. However, as the largest department in the school, not only do we have more textbooks than any other department, but we also have so very many novels.

And not just for the courses we currently teach. Right now, we house about 50 different works of both fiction and nonfiction that are not currently being used in any course. Some of the books have been in the book room (and not used) for at least two decades now. Some of the books have only one class set being stored in there, or half a class set. Some have three or four class sets. These means we have a couple thousand books to count.

It may seem silly to keep books that no one is teaching. In some cases I agree. However, the reason we keep them is that they’ve all been school board approved. If any teacher in the department wants to change out one of the novels they teach, they can easily do it. In addition, if we decide to develop a new course, like we are doing this year by adding 20th Century Literature, teachers have a lot of options to help them build the course.

Still, it means several weeks of counting before the end of the school year. The books are stored in rooms that are hot and the books are stored in cabinets where even I need a step stool to reach (and count) many of them.

Some years we are able to get students to help us with the count. Other years we get stuck doing it entirely on our own. In theory that means everyone contributes equally, but in reality that is never the way it works. Since I am department chair, it falls on me to make sure it gets down. If anyone doesn’t get their share done, the expectation is that I will do it. And since everyone in my department knows I can’t leave the book count unfinished (both for insurance reasons and because it is one of my duties to make sure it gets turned in), I usually end up doing more than my share.

This year I got started on it early. I had a few wonderful students who offered to help me during their study hall time. I made sure to close off the book rooms a few weeks before the end of school. I knew this would mean that a great many teachers would end up still having books out to their students and books in their classrooms, but the policy is anything in your personal classroom is 100% your responsibility. This year I got smart!

Since my students were working on projects, I collected their books as early as possible as well so that my study hall kids could help me count the books in my room (I store all the AP Lit and AP Lang books in my classroom). Since I have the largest number of books used for my classes, my personal count always takes awhile. But, with some student elbow grease, we got it done in two days.

When I left school on the final day, only two teachers still hadn’t finished their personal book counts, but I let my principal know that two were still finishing up (without throwing them under the bus) and he gave me the green light to leave.

Book count is one of the many things neither college nor student teaching prepared me for. In my four and a half years in the teaching program, I never heard even a whisper of it. While I am not saying my education didn’t prepare me to be a teacher, in many ways it really did, it still never ceases to amaze me all the unspoken duties teachers have.

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Teaching Tuesday: Final grading stress

The end of the school year is here. With it comes much cleaning and even more rejoicing. Unfortunately, it also brings in a TON of grading! And not just the run of the mill essays or vocabulary assignments I hadn’t gotten around to yet, but the dreaded F word: FINALS!

It is a requirement at my high school that all students take a final or do a final project that is worth 20% of their overall semester grade. As a rule I give my film lit seniors an essay final. My AP juniors and seniors complete a final project which requires them to create something based on one of the books they read for class, write an essay explaining their project and then give a presentation of the project. While I don’t technically have a final “test” to grade, what I end up with is about 100 essays (and 75 projects) to grade.

This is enough to make my stress level rise a few degrees, but what really kicks it into overdrive is that seniors take their finals on Wed and Thurs so that they can finish up a day before everyone else. This in itself is not a huge issue. However, since graduation is on Friday, all teachers with seniors have to have every single thing, including finals, graded before they leave school on Thursday evening. This means that teachers who give their seniors a final on the last block on Thursday have to stay after school and grade them all right then.

The administration’s argument is that they need to immediately know if a student did not pass and will not be able to participate at graduation. However, it’s not just the seniors in danger of failing whose grades must be done, because they also need to calculate final grades for Valedictorian, Salutatorian and Top 10. Since my AP kids usually make up about 90% of the top 10, I have to get those grades done ASAP.

Thankfully this year both of my senior class finals took place on Wednesday, so I got a bit of “extra” time to get all 60 of them graded. Still, that was 60 essays to grade in 48 hours (while still teaching the entire day on Thursday). I was WORN OUT when I left the building.

On the plus side, that meant that I had until Tuesday at 4pm to get grades for my 40 juniors done. So, I could shove everything of theirs that still needed grading off in order to conquer my senior piles.

As usual, I got it all done. And so far I’ve only had one student email me to ask if there was any way I would bump her grade up 2% so she could get straight A’s this grading period (the answer was no).

Now I plan to take a few days off from anything school related before jumping in to doing lesson plans for the College Board’s summer AP institutes.

I truly wish the myth of teachers getting 8-12 weeks off in the summer was real. My guess is I’ll get a week or two of no actual school work. I’m going to guess maybe a day or two where I have no administrators, counselor or student who emails me with something I have to respond to. So far we’ve been on break for one week and I have yet to have one of those days!

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Free Reading Friday:Flawed

FlawedFlawed by Cecelia Ahern is yet another dystopian piece of YA literature that has found itself onto my shelf. It’s starting to feel like this is the only genre of YA being put out lately. Given all the problems currently facing our world, I get why the genre is so popular. I saw a great meme online the other day basically telling older generations that they cannot be surprised that a generation of kids raised on Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen and Tris are standing up, speaking their minds and rallying for change.

While I know a lot of “adults” would like to dismiss these young voices and pretend they are too ignorant and uniformed to really know what they are talking about, I fear those same adults are going to be greatly put out when they realized just how smart, informed and motivated today’s youth are. Literature is a powerful tool and these kids and young adults have grown up with literary heroes who have shown them time and time again that they can stand up not only to adults, but to unjust governments. Their literary heroes topple worlds. Is it any surprise they want to as well?

My latest read, Flawed, is a book with a clear message. In case the reader happens to miss it, Ahern even lays it out in the acknowledgments: “None of us are perfect. Let us not pretend that we are. Let us not be afraid that we’re not. Let us not label others and pretend we are not the same. Let us all know that to be human is to be flawed, and let us learn from every mistake made so we don’t make them again.”

While this message definitely rings true in this book and I think this is Ahern’s main message, the way she goes about delivering it speaks volumes to issues currently playing out in our world. Celestine North, the main character, lives in a world where people who are judged to have “flaws” in their moral character are literally branded and forced to live almost like modern day lepers. In addition to the government, which creates and enforces criminal code, Celestine’s world also has a Guild, whose job it is to enforce morality to ensure everyone in society is perfect. Those who step out of line from the morals deemed acceptable by society are tried, found guilty (only one person has ever escaped a guilty verdict) and are shunned by society. The shunning goes so deep, that giving any kind of aid to a Flawed person is a mark of being flawed.

The Flawed have visible brands, have special seats on public transportation, are not allowed to keep their children, can have only one luxury item a week, must eat a completely bland diet, cannot leave the country, have curfews and have to check in with what is basically a parole officer (called Whistleblowers) for the rest of their lives. In short, although they have committed no actual crimes, those who are deemed morally flawed are treated worse than criminals who get to serve their time and move on.

In the reinvention of public shaming that has come with the invention of social media, this system of being forever punished for moral failures seems a scary reality.

The book focuses on the corruption of the Guild and how one voice, and not surprisingly, the voice of a teenage girl, could expose that corruption and bring an end to it.

This is the first book in the series and I enjoyed it. There is definitely better dystopian lit out there, but considering all of the very public debates over morality and the way politicians are trying to force their morality on the world, I think it is a very timely and very interesting idea to explore. I think teenagers will relate to it and enjoy Celestine’s story.

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Travel Thursday: NYC

NYC parkAlthough my work with the College Board kept me indoors for most of my trip to NYC, every day at lunch time, we got an hour long break. Since food was provided for us, it was easy to dish some up, eat and chat and still have a solid 30 minutes to kill. My Fitbit was quite annoyed with all the sitting I was doing between the hours of 9-5 (and so was I, I generally pace my classroom because I don’t sit still well). So every day I went out for a walk.

Since the building we were working in is right on the water, we discovered the break room which has a pretty fantastic view of the Statue of Liberty. One of my colleagues wanted to see if she could get a better view, so I decided to tag along. It was quite windy and after walking for a good ten minutes, we realized we weren’t going to get a much better view.

NYC park longWhat we did get, however, was also pretty fun. We found this really interesting parkish area right in the middle of our walk. I hesitate to actually call it a park as there was nothing green within its arches at all. What it was, was a bit closer to a resting spot.  Or maybe even an art installation as I didn’t actually see anyone resting in it. The entire area was set off by these stone bedecked columns, arches and small rectangular pieces that served as barriers of sort. On the farthest section from where my colleague and I first glimpsed the “park” was this strange decorative gazebo of sorts. I’m not entirely sure what its purpose is other than to be interesting, but in the middle of this raised platform, is this little palm-tree looking piece that is centered in a strange non-gazebo gazebo. A plague near this mentioned the game Mahjong, which I found interesting as there didn’t seem to be any place to actually play Mahjong.

NYC chess tableThere was a bench at the end of the platform closest to the water, but like every stereotypical park scene I’ve ever seen about NYC, it had a checker/chess board, not a Mahjong table. The table had six inlaid chess boards and hard little stone seats to sit and play chess upon. Not that anyone was playing chess there. Actually, aside from my colleague and I, no one entered in to the little area at all. Considering how busy the walkway was with joggers, people out for strolls, tourists and workers on their lunch breaks, I was amazed that we were the only ones exploring this little area. Although the seats didn’t look at all comfortable, it seemed odd to have this space with no one in it. I really wanted some old man to be teaching his grandchild how to play chess here.

I’m still not entirely sure what the purpose of this space was. Was it supposed to be a park? A place to sit and relax? A place to play chess? An art installation? Or just a conversation piece for tourists like myself?

Whatever it was, it was pretty cool.

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Teaching Tuesday: Senior gifts

When I first started teaching 20 years ago, I was at a very small public school. It was a university laboratory school, so there was a cap on enrollment that never changed. In addition to educating students, the school also existed to help educate future teachers. Every year a cavalcade of wanna be teachers would tromp through my classroom during their practicums. Some were there for only a few weeks, while others spent two months with me. Some had to teach only a handful of lessons and some had to teach for two or three solid weeks.

Since we had to supervise not only teenage students but also adult ones, class sizes were limited to make the job more manageable. There were only 40 kids in each grade and since I taught both of the 9th grade English classes, at some point, I had every single student before they graduated. Actually, I had each of them at least twice. For awhile I also taught some middle school classes, so I had some of them four times.

I was also the drama director at this school and we did three plays every year. Since the school was actually a K-12, I did a few big musicals with elementary kids, so I got to know some of those kids really well. My first group of kids who tried out for my very first play when they were in 7th grade (I directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream for middle schoolers), were with me for 6 years, with most of them being involved in every show I directed, either on stage or behind it.

I really knew those kids.

When they graduated, I got invited to open houses. A LOT of open houses. Back then I had no kids, lived very close to the school and had a lot of free time. I went to just about every open house. And why not? For the price of a small gift or card, I got to eat really good food and spend an hour (or two) with students (and parents) I had come to truly love. Since I was usually invited to about 20 open houses a year, I had several weekends where I didn’t have to do any cooking at all.

At the time, my best friend worked at Half Price Books, so I would go there the weekend before open houses, grab books for each kid that was graduating and use her employee discount to get even better deals. I would then write a personalized note to each kid graduating inside the book. It was a lot of work, but totally worth it.

When I came to my new school, I gave up drama and started advising the newspaper (I have a degree in journalism and English). I loved my newspaper kids, but there were only about a dozen kids on staff and since I taught all 9th and 10th graders, the first year I taught, I only got invited to three open houses. Since I was still kid-free, even though I now lived 45 minutes from school, I still went to each open house and still came with a personally inscribed book in hand.

Over the years, my teaching duties and my life, have changed significantly. My newspaper staff has grown, and this year, over half of my staff was made up of seniors (next year will be a MAJOR rebuilding year). In addition, I now teach almost entirely seniors and since I have nearly all of my AP kids for two years in a row, I once again get to know my seniors really well. This year I was invited to a record 28 open houses.

There was no way I could go. Now I have kids of my own and still live 45 minutes from school. Not to mention that even if I only spend $5 a book, that’s $140 on graduation gifts. I love my students, but that is a bit much. Not to mention that if I went to one, I’d feel obligated to go to all, and that would mean about 4 solid weekends without seeing my own kids much, which doesn’t seem fair to anyone.

So, I’ve altered things a bit. Instead of getting books for every senior and going to all of the open houses, I have limited myself to just getting books for my senior newspaper students. Since I spend a concentrated bit of time with them every single day and the class is more relaxed, I get to know them in a much more personal way.

Now we have a giant pitch-in where I give every kid an award that highlights something great or funny they did during the school year, I announce my editors for next year and I give all of my seniors inscribed books chosen specifically for them.

This year our “banquet” was a bit last minute. I’d had a few deaths in my family and my life was topsy-turvy at the end of the year. I did not get to do the planning I usually do for our end of the year party and I felt terrible about it. However, I refused to skimp when it came to my seniors. I still went to Half Price Books and used my teacher discount to get books for them all (it only came to $60!). When I gave them out, I couldn’t help but notice a few tears as they read my messages. There were tons of hugs. It was our last day of newspaper and I was definitely sad to see them go.

Each year there are always a few seniors I am THRILLED to see leave, but there are so many more I know that I will miss in August when they aren’t sitting in my classroom.

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